Pacifying the South China Sea

A handscroll of the Qing dynasty

By Hong Kong Maritime Museum


Pacifying the South China Sea : Part 1 (1810)Hong Kong Maritime Museum

The Painting

This painting was said to be drawn based on the story from a manuscript written by Yuan Yunglun of Shunde (順德), a local Cantonese historian. He published Jinghai fenji (靖海氛記) in November of 1830 in Guangzhou. In this publication he describes many of the events that are depicted in the scroll. His narrative is highly pro-government and thus should be considered with some caution.

Qing Imperial Coastal Defence forces map out their strategy to defeat the Fujian (South China) pirates in the autumn of 1809.

Villages were targeted by the sea bandits, known as haidao. Food, money and supplies were demanded as tribute. Villagers were also often taken hostage and held for ransom until their families could pay.

Guo Podai, leader of the black fleet (one group of sea bandits) surrenders to Bailing, the Governor-general of Quangdong and Quangxi, at Pinghai in Daya Bay, about 30 km ENE of Hong Kong. Guo Podai is shown kneeling in front of Bailing and is now wearing the official Qing headwear. The black fleet was the first significant number of pirates to be pacified.

These ships may represent pirate vessels that were surrendered at the time that the Qing were besieging the pirates in Lantau, very close to the current Hong Kong International Airport in November 1810.

The siege of the pirates at Lantau is one of the pivotal moments of the scroll. The government navy, with the help of some Portuguese ships (not shown), engaged the pirates for nine days. Zhang Bao of the red squadron asked Guo Podai of the black fleet for assistance. It was Guo Podai’s refusal to assist that helped to strain the alliance of the pirate bands.

On the fifth, in the morning, the red squadron anchored in a bay under Lantow; the black squadron stood to the east. The chief’s wife, Zheng Yisao frequently sprinkled the men with garlic-water, a ritual among the pirates that they believed would help them avoid being shot.

Richard Glasspoole (1788-1846), mate of the Indiaman Marquis of Ely, and his fellow English sailors were captured by the red squadron just prior to the siege of Lantau. His narrative, Mr. Glasspoole and the Chinese pirates, provides first-hand accounts of the scroll’s narrative.

Pacifying the South China Sea : Part 2 (1810)Hong Kong Maritime Museum

The escape of the red fleet was an obvious failure on the part of the government navy to suppress piracy. It is possible that a major military exercise and review of this kind was held. Bailing needed to prepare the troops for future battle.

The exercise illustrates the military tactics of the day. Ships would transport soldiers close to the enemy and then hand to hand combat would ensue. Note the array of edge weapons that were designed for close combat.

At Humen, the pirate chiefs were forced to submit.

Zhang Bao and Zheng Yisao had only narrowly escaped at the siege of Lantau. Therefore they were open to discuss their surrender, just as Guo Podai had done earlier. It was agreed that Bailing and the leaders of the red squadron would meet to discuss the pacification of the largest of the pirate bands. These discussions were facilitated through Dr. Chow Fei Heung, a physician from Macao.

Pacifying the South China Sea : Part 3 (1810)Hong Kong Maritime Museum

This scene marks the pinnacle of Bailing's efforts. With the surrender of the red squadron, he had been able to subdue the most powerful of the pirate groups. Along with the surrender of the black fleet, Baliling has now pacified more than 30% of all the pirates.

Zhang Bao is shown kneeling before Bailing now wearing a hat of the government navy.

Fujian pirates reaffirm their loyalty and allegiance to the Emperor.

Pacifying the South China Sea : Part 4 (1810)Hong Kong Maritime Museum

The navy is now ready to raze Gaolei (the counties of Gaozhou and Leizhou).

The troops are being prepared for battle. As they arrive at the embarkation point, the soldiers make a tight formation. The ships are shown at different points of readiness. An assortment of weapons can be seen including breech loading cannons, swords and muskets.

By an edict of the “Son of Heaven”, Bailing was recompensed for his merits. He was promoted to secondary guardian of the Prince. It allowed him wearing peacock’s-feathers with two eyes tied to his headware that showing hereditary title. (Yuan, 1830)

Zhang Bao, who has now been appointed a Lieutenant in the government navy, helps to suppress the remaining pirate bands, which included the blue, yellow and green fleets. Commanders of these fleets included men with colourful nicknames such as Frog’s Meal and Scourge of the Eastern Sea. Bailing's goal was to clear the area known as the western passage, the last major pirate holdout.

Pacifying the South China Sea : Part 5 (1810)Hong Kong Maritime Museum

The people of the Shuangxi bring the pirates before the magistrate.

Villages that served as a base and refuge for the pirates were destroyed. This was an important symbol to the people support piracy and face destruction.

A small island, surrounded on all sides by high mountains, where in stormy weather a hundred vessels could find safe anchorage. It was here that the pirates retired when they could not rob and plunder no longer.

The naval forces’ triumphant return. The procession includes the individuals seen earlier in the sentencing panel. There are also horses without riders that symbolize the soldiers that were lost during the campaign.

Pacifying the South China Sea : Part 6 (1810)Hong Kong Maritime Museum

The Emperor sends his Imperial Edict commending the success of his officials and military forces.

Prosperity and peace return to villages and markets.

This land boasts fine paddy fields and abounds in all kinds of animals, flowers, and fruits. All is quiet on the rivers, the four seas are tranquil, and people live in peace and plenty. (Yuan, 1830)

Foreigners again bring tribute by land and sea. The suppression of piracy allowed for foreign trade to resume on a larger scale. The procession represents foreigners who have brought tribute in order to spur trade. The various items offered represent the vast diversity in the Chinese trading world.

And here trading vessels from all over the world meet together. Fittingly this poprtion is called “The great meeting from the east and the south.” (Yuan, 1830)

The actual scroll is on display on the C Deck of the Hong Kong Maritime Museum.

Credits: Story

This exhibit was curated by Robert Trio and Kitty But.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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